How Changing Your Story Can Change Your Life: Lori Gottlieb (Transcript)

We say, “Yeah, you’re right, he’s a jerk,” when a friend tells us that her boyfriend broke up with her, even though we know that there are certain ways she tends to behave in relationships, like the incessant texting or the going through his drawers, that tend to lead to this outcome.

We see the problem, it’s like, if a fight breaks out in every bar you’re going to, it might be you. In order to be good editors, we need to offer wise compassion, not just to our friends, but to ourselves. This is what’s called — I think the technical term might be — “delivering compassionate truth bombs.”

And these truth bombs are compassionate, because they help us to see what we’ve left out of the story. The truth is, we don’t know if this woman’s husband is having an affair, or why their sex life changed two years ago, or what those late-night phone calls are really about.

And it might be that because of her history, she’s writing a singular story of betrayal, but there’s probably something else that she’s not willing to let me, in her letter, or maybe even herself, to see.

It’s like that guy who’s taking a Rorschach test. You all know what Rorschach tests are? A psychologist shows you some ink blots, they look like that, and asks, “What do you see?”

So the guy looks at his ink blot and he says, “Well, I definitely don’t see blood.”

And the examiner says, “All right, tell me what else you definitely don’t see.” In writing, this is called point of view. What is the narrator not willing to see?

So, I want to read you one more letter. And it goes like this.

“Dear Therapist,

I need help with my wife. Lately, everything I do irritates her, even small things, like the noise I make when I chew. At breakfast, I noticed that she even tries to secretly put extra milk in my granola so it won’t be as crunchy.

I feel like she became critical of me after my father died two years ago. I was very close with him, and her father left when she was young, so she couldn’t relate to what I was going through.

There’s a friend at work whose father died a few months ago, and who understands my grief. I wish I could talk to my wife like I talk to my friend, but I feel like she barely tolerates me now. How can I get my wife back?”

So, what you probably picked up on is that this is the same story I read you earlier, just told from another narrator’s point of view.

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Her story was about a husband who’s cheating, his story is about a wife who can’t understand his grief. But what’s remarkable, is that for all of their differences, what both of these stories are about is a longing for connection.

And if we can get out of the first-person narration and write the story from another character’s perspective, suddenly that other character becomes much more sympathetic, and the plot opens up. That’s the hardest step in the editing process, but it’s also where change begins.

What would happen if you looked at your story and wrote it from another person’s point of view? What would you see now from this wider perspective? That’s why, when I see people who are depressed, I sometimes say, “You are not the best person to talk to you about you right now,” because depression distorts our stories in a very particular way. It narrows our perspectives.

The same is true when we feel lonely or hurt or rejected. We create all kinds of stories, distorted through a very narrow lens that we don’t even know we’re looking through.

And then, we’ve effectively become our own fake-news broadcasters. I have a confession to make. I wrote the husband’s version of the letter I read you. You have no idea how much time I spent debating between granola and pita chips, by the way.

I wrote it based on all of the alternative narratives that I’ve seen over the years, not just in my therapy practice, but also in my column.

When it’s happened that two people involved in the same situation have written to me, unbeknownst to the other, and I have two versions of the same story sitting in my inbox. That really has happened.

I don’t know what the other version of this woman’s letter is, but I do know this: she has to write it.

Because with a courageous edit, she’ll write a much more nuanced version of her letter that she wrote to me. Even if her husband is having an affair of any kind — and maybe he is — she doesn’t need to know what the plot is yet. Because just by virtue of doing an edit, she’ll have so many more possibilities for what the plot can become.

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Now, sometimes it happens that I see people who are really stuck, and they’re really invested in their stuckness. We call them help-rejecting complainers.

I’m sure you know people like this. They’re the people who, when you try to offer them a suggestion, they reject it with, “Yeah, no, that will never work, because …”

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